EA’s Need for Speed World is a hybrid racing game/MMORPG, released earlier this year as a free-to-play experience that allows players to log in and race competitively in an expansive, free-roaming game world. Combining the high-octane driving experience of previous games in the Need for Speed series with the continual development and customisable personal stats of an online role-playing game such as World of Warcraft, Need for Speed World aims to give players the short-term thrill of intense head-to-head driving as well as a long-term sense of achievement as they improve their car and award themselves special abilities for hitting game play milestones.
To add to the player experience, EA recently announced that they were implementing Dolby’s new Axon voice communication technology. Axon is touted as revolutionising the in-game communication market, which up until now has been regarded as an afterthought, either tacked on to a game and under-used, or provided by third party software that many are reluctant to install. The sound delivered by commonly-used voice software – such as the popular Teamspeak and Ventrilo, or Microsoft’s in-built voice chat on Xbox Live – tends to be of low quality, and when there are two dozen people trying to speak at once, it can get rather chaotic and hard to organise the action.
Axon boasts a high quality, surround sound experience for users of in-game voice chat, compatible with 5.1 and 7.1 surround speakers, as well as conventional headphones. Directional feedback means that your team mates’ voices will come from the same direction as their relative position to you in the game environment. Similarly, Axon allows the sound to be mapped to the layout of the game you are playing, meaning that voice chat can potentially be affected by barriers such as walls, trees and water, as well as becoming louder or softer depending on how far away from you the source is. Put simply, Axon intends to bring voice communication up to speed with the advanced level of sound technology used for modern in-game voices and sound effects.
I can see a lot of potential for this kind of technology, especially since many gamers crave every ounce of realism they can get from their gaming experience. Although the vastly improved sound quality, echo reduction and excess noise filtering will be welcomed by most, I suspect that the other features will divide opinion. For instance, people playing World of Warcraft will need uninterrupted contact with their raid members at all times, and if Axon means that a player moving behind a pillar is cut off from communication at a crucial moment, Axon would be considered more of a hindrance than a benefit. While it may be very useful to hear exactly where your squad mate is standing when he yells of incoming danger, if he’s standing far enough away that his voice is but a faint whisper, the warning will do you precious little good.
Overall, I like the concept of multi-directional voice communication. I think if Dolby includes a comprehensive level of customisation, enabling people to forego the distance-dependent fading and environmental mapping in certain critical situations, it could be a real winner. After all, I’m not sure what good being able to hear exactly which direction your racing team-mate is talking from is when you’re both travelling at 100mph and taking hairpin bends every ten seconds or so.